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Wolfgang Späte
Wolfgang Späte
Born (1911-09-08)8 September 1911
Died 30 April 1997(1997-04-30) (aged 85)
Place of birth Podersam, Sudetenland
Place of death Edewecht, Germany
Allegiance Nazi Germany Nazi Germany (to 1945)
West Germany West Germany
Service/branch Heer, Luftwaffe
Years of service 1939-1945, 1956-1967
Rank Major (Wehrmacht)
Oberstleutnant (Bundeswehr)
Unit JG 54, JG 400, JG 7
Commands held 5./JG 54, IV./JG 54, JG 400, III./JG 7
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
Other work Bundeswehr

Major Wolfgang Späte (1911-1997) was a German World War II Luftwaffe flying ace. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (German language: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub). The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves was awarded to recognize extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership - for the fighter pilots, it was a quantifiable measure of skill and combat success. He is attributed by some, for an early, 1938 version of the speed to fly theory,[1] usually attributed to Paul MacCready. Already a talented glider pilot before the war, he went on to become of the Luftwaffe's foremost test pilots.


He was born on 8 September 1911 in Podersam.

Before World War II Späte was a well-known and award-winning glider pilot and a student of the TH Darmstadt. In 1939 he was a Leutnant in the army, and then for the first year of the war flew as a reconnaissance pilot.[2] However, by the start of 1941, as an Oberleutnant, he had converted onto fighters and was serving with 5./JG 54 - the 5th Staffel (squadron) of Jagdgeschwader 54 (54th Fighter Wing).[3]

Sent along with JG 54 to cover the German invasion of the Balkans and Greece, he scored his first victory (a Yugoslav Bristol Blenheim, near Pecs in Hungary) on 7 April 1941.[4] Returning to the eastern frontier for Operation Barbarossa, he shot down two SB-2 bombers on 23 June, the second day of the invasion. Victories came regularly, and he was awarded the Ehrenpokal, for 25 victories, on 9 August. Soon after, on 10 September, he was promoted to Staffelkapitän of 5./JG 54. Then on 5 October, he became the 10th member of JG 54 to be awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross), after reaching 45 victories. His unit withdrew to the Reich at the end of the year for rest and refit, and Späte was promoted to Hauptmann on 1 January 1942. Success continued upon returning to the north of the Eastern Front as the Soviets desperately tried to raise the siege of Leningrad. This culminated with the award of the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross on 23 April 1942 when he had 72 victories.[5] However, with the award, he was ordered back to the Reich to set up a top-secret unit: Erprobungskommando 16, EKdo 16 - to test-fly the revolutionary new rocket-fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 163 "Komet".

Messerschmitt Me 163 at the Luftwaffenmuseum in Berlin-Gatow

He took his first flight in the Me 163 on 8 May 1942. Over the next year testing continued and slowly specially chosen pilots joined EKdo 16. Interestingly, side by side with the rocket-fighter project, was the test programme of the Me 262 jet-fighter (under EKdo 262). Späte first flew the Me 262 on 17 April 1943, and is one of a select few pilots to have flown both ground-breaking aircraft.[6][7] After another year, the Me 163 was deemed combat-ready, and the testing program was wound down. Späte was promoted to Major and sent back to command a combat unit: IV./JG 54, currently based in Romania. Before he left for his new posting though, on 14 May 1944 he flew the first combat sortie for the Me 163. According to some sources, his Me 163 PK+OL was painted red, either in the factory or by ground crew, resembling Manfred von Richthofen's Fokker Dr.I. Although he flew the mission (without success, twice unable to intercept the evemy when the rocket engine failed), Späte was not amused after seeing the plane and ordered it to be re-painted.[8] [Notes 1]

His new unit was quickly recalled to the Reich in June to cover the transfer of all the squadrons sent west following the D-day landings. There it was converted onto the Fw 190A-8 and then sent to Poland against the great Russian summer offensive.[9] But against vastly greater numbers of enemy aircraft the unit was butchered, losing nearly half its pilots killed or wounded - Späte himself was injured and forced to bail out of his aircraft. The unit was pulled back again to the Reich for refit and rebuild. On 17 September, the Allied forces staged their airborne operation at Arnhem. Again, IV./JG 54 was thrown into the fray, but for the second time in less than 3 months, against vastly superior opposition, it was destroyed in less than a fortnight.[10]

Whether due to problems getting the Me 163 operational, or his unit's catastrophic losses, Späte gave up his command of IV./JG 54. In his 4-month absence from the Me 163 programme, the first combat unit (I./JG 400) had been set up and he joined that unit to come back up to speed on the interceptor's progress (some sources say as the unit's commander, although Hptm Robert Olejnik (pilot) is also given as the unit commander at this time).[2][6][11] However, this was interrupted when he was hospitalised in mid-October due to illness for a month.[2]

Finally in late December, with the Me 163 squadrons expanded to three full Gruppen, JG 400 got its Stab (Headquarters) flight, becoming the first operational combat unit with rocket aircraft, with Wolfgang Späte as its first (and only) Kommodore. After all the testing however, combat success was very limited, with only a handful of victories ever recorded for JG 400. Despite the flood of American bomber raids, it was just too limited as a point-defence interceptor and quite ineffective. With the war situation getting more desperate, it was an unaffordable luxury of personnel and resources and the unit was disbanded in early March and its pilots and crew dispersed to other units.

Späte himself was sent for full training on the Messerschmitt Me 262, and on 5 April took over command of I./JG 7, a combat unit flying that equally new, but far more successful jet-fighter. He continued to command this unit for the final month of the war and managed to score 5 victories flying the Me 262, thus becoming a jet-ace as well.

Serving with JG 54 on the Eastern front, and Jagdgeschwader 400 and Jagdgeschwader 7 in Western Europe, Wolfgang Späte is credited with the destruction of 99 enemy aircraft shot down in over 350 combat missions.[Notes 2]

In 1956 he rejoined the military service in the Bundeswehr. Oberstleutnant Späte retired on 30 September 1967. He died on 30 April 1997 in Edewecht, at the age of 85.




  1. Pettersson, Åke (Oct-November 2006). "Letters". Sailplane & Gliding (British Gliding Association) 57 (5): 6
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Luftwaffe Officer Career Summaries website.
  3. Luftwaffe 39-45 Historia website.
  4. Weal 2001, pg. 39.
  5. Weal 2001, pg. 57.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Smith & Creek 2005
  7. Forsyth 2008, pg. 9.
  8. Sundin & Bergström 1997, pg. 80.
  9. Weal 2001, pg. 109.
  10. Weal 2001, pg. 94.
  11. Luftwaffe Air Units: Single–Engined Fighters website.
  12. Obermaier 1989, p. 50.
  13. Patzwall and Scherzer 2001, p. 450.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Thomas 1998, p. 332.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Scherzer 2007, p. 711.
  • Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939-1945. Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 3-7909-0284-5.
  • Bergström, Christer & Mikhailov, Andrey (2001). Black Cross, Red Star Vol 2 Pacifica Military History. ISBN 0-935553-51-7
  • Forsythe, Robert (2008). Aviation Elite Units #29: Jagdgeschwader 7 'Nowotny’. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84603-320-9
  • Morgan, Hugh & Weal, John (1998). German Jet Aces of World War 2. Orsprey Publishing Limited. ISBN 1-85532-634-5, incl colour picture of his aircraft, #29
  • Obermaier, Ernst (1989). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Luftwaffe Jagdflieger 1939 - 1945 (in German). Mainz, Germany: Verlag Dieter Hoffmann. ISBN 3-87341-065-6.
  • Patzwall, Klaus D. and Scherzer, Veit (2001). Das Deutsche Kreuz 1941 - 1945 Geschichte und Inhaber Band II. Norderstedt, Germany: Verlag Klaus D. Patzwall. ISBN 3-931533-45-X.
  • Schaulen, Fritjof (2005). Eichenlaubträger 1940 - 1945 Zeitgeschichte in Farbe III Radusch - Zwernemann (in German). Selent, Germany: Pour le Mérite. ISBN 3-932381-22-X.
  • Scherzer, Veit (2007). Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2.
  • Smith, J.Richard & Creek, Eddie J (2005). “Jagdwaffe Vol 5, Sec4: Jet Fighters and Rocket Interceptors 1944 - 1945” Hersham, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing ISBN 1-903223-52-0, incl colour picture of his aircraft, p. 310
  • Späte, Wolfgang. Der streng geheime Vogel Me 163 (in German). DÖRFLER im NEBEL VERLAG GmbH. ISBN 978-3-89555-142-0.
  • Sundin, Claes & Bergström, Christer (1997). Luftwaffe Fighter Aircraft in Profile. Altglen, PA: Schiffer Military History. ISBN 0-7643-0291-4, incl colour picture of his aircraft, #71
  • Thomas, Franz (1998). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 2: L–Z (in German). Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag. ISBN 3-7648-2300-3.
  • Weal, John (2001). Aviation Elite Units #6: Jagdgeschwader 54 ‘Grünherz’. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84176-286-5.
  • Weal, John (2007). More Bf109 Aces of the Russian Front. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84603-177-9, incl colour picture of his aircraft, #29

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Oblt Hubert Mütherich
Squadron Leader of 5./JG 54
10 September 1941 – 19 April 1942
Succeeded by
Oblt Joachim Wandel
Preceded by
none: new unit
Squadron Leader of Erprobungskommando 16
20 April 1942 – 30 April 1944
Succeeded by
Hptm Anton Thaler
Preceded by
Hptm Gerhard Koall
Group Commander of IV./JG 54
1 May 1944 – September, 1944
Succeeded by
Hptm Rudolf Klemm
Preceded by
none: new unit
Group Commander of I./JG 400
8 September 1944 – 30 November 1944
Succeeded by
Hptm Wilhelm Fulda
Preceded by
none: new unit
Wing Commander of Jagdgeschwader 400
1 December 1944 – 7 March 1945
Succeeded by
none: unit disbanded
Preceded by
Maj Erich Rudorffer
Group Commander of I./JG 7
5 April 1945 – 8 May 1945
Succeeded by
none: end of war

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